Gang members charged in Tennessee courts will be eligible to be charged with tougher felonies, leading to longer prison sentences as a new enhanced sentencing law simplifies how organized crime is prosecuted.
The new legislation, which went into effect on July 1, rewrote the state’s definition of a criminal gang offense and categorizes 26 crimes as such, including aggravated assault, carjacking and possession with intent to sell.
Prosecutors can increase the felony level and request a harsher sentence by proving the offense was committed as part of a criminal gang with less evidence than required under the previous statute, which Assistant District Attorney Rob McGuire said was “tougher to work with.”
McGuire, who has prosecuted gang cases in Nashville since 2006, called the bill a response by the legislature to the unique challenges that apply to prosecuting gang members.
The loose, unwritten structure of criminal gangs often makes it difficult for investigators to pin down physical evidence or records of a member’s involvement, and witness testimony is even harder to obtain.
A “culture of silence” keeps gang members and witnesses from talking, McGuire said.
“If it’s a violent crime, it’s very difficult,” he said. “Citizens are afraid, not just of the individual, but of the individual’s organization.”
McGuire said witnesses in Nashville had not experienced any serious retaliation for testifying — the worst being some harassing phone calls — but citizens are still choosing to keep quiet about crimes in their communities.
Prosecutors hope the new legislation will bridge the gap between what investigators know and what they can bring into court.
“Flexibility — that’s what we need,” McGuire said. “Recognize that this is difficult proof to get, and strike that balance between being fair to the defendant and protecting the community when there’s a high level of violence corresponding with this.”
For investigators, the new bill means building solid, well-documented cases and emphasizing the partnership between police work and prosecution, said Lt. Steve Duncan, head of the Metro Nashville Police Department’s gang units.
“We investigate the gang members, the gang and the activities, so anything that would enhance sentencing in relation to that, we’re obviously a proponent of,” Duncan said. “We try to utilize all the tools.”
A 2012 report compiled by Gov. Bill Haslam’s public safety forum estimated gang members in Tennessee outnumbered law enforcement 2 to 1, prompting increased investigation and legislation.
The MNPD actually has three gang units that work with precincts to put officers into areas with an active gang presence.
“If you’re in South Nashville, you may think the Kurdish Pride gang is a huge problem because that’s what you see; if you’re in North Nashville, Crips; but we see activity in pretty much all parts of the city,” Duncan said.